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GOP candidate battle turns to Alabama, Mississippi

Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich campaigns Saturday outside Mama Lou’s Restaurant in Robertsdale, Ala.

Associated Press

Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich campaigns Saturday outside Mama Lou’s Restaurant in Robertsdale, Ala.

MOBILE, Ala. — Newt Gingrich sees victory in the Alabama and Mississippi primaries on Tuesday as a chance — perhaps his last — to show he remains a viable contender for president.

For Rick Santorum, wins in the Deep South hold the potential to drive the former House speaker out of the race, strengthening him for the battle to topple GOP front-runner Mitt Romney.

As for Romney, Alabama and Mississippi are an opportunity to diminish, if not crush, the insurgent candidacy of Santorum with an aggressive ad campaign.

The three colliding goals are in play as Tuesday's vote nears. But if the stakes are high in the two states, so is the peril.

The Republican presidential candidates have been crisscrossing the South for days, calibrating their messages for an audience far more conservative than the swing voters who will decide in November between one of them and President Barack Obama.

At times, Alabama and Mississippi have proved settings for candidates to play up appeals to religious conservatives, a tactic that could backfire for the Republican nominee in the fall.

Gingrich has taken the biggest gamble, in terms of strategy and rhetoric. He abandoned a six-stop swing across Kansas to focus this week solely on the South. Even though he has captured Georgia and South Carolina, his disappointing third-place finishes in Tennessee and Oklahoma this week cast doubt on his prospects.

At a rally on Thursday in Jackson, he ripped into Obama's patriotism and religious bearings in an effort to draw support from evangelical Christians who dominate Southern primaries.

He accused Obama of "declaring war on the Catholic Church and every right-to-life institution" with a rule requiring religious organizations to include contraception in their employees' health plans. That line of attack — which Romney and Santorum have also used — has left some Republicans fretting that the party may alienate women, whose support they will need in the fall.

In Montgomery, Ala., the day before, Gingrich used a cultural and religious framework to promote his vow to cut gas prices by expanding domestic energy supplies.

"If you want $9-a-gallon gasoline and bowing to Saudi kings, vote for Obama," he said. The president, he added, apologizes "to radical Islamist fanatics while attacking the Catholic Church," so "if you want somebody who believes in religious freedom in America and is willing to say to the Saudis they ought to have religious freedom in Saudi Arabia too, vote for Newt Gingrich."

Santorum has also made religion a prime focus. At a banquet Thursday in Mobile, he renewed his criticism of John F. Kennedy for saying during his 1960 presidential campaign that he believed "in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute."

"That's not America," Santorum said. "That's France. That's a naked public square where people of faith are out of bounds."

Santorum backed away from an earlier statement that Kennedy's speech made him want to "throw up" but pledged to keep speaking out for religion's place in public life.

"Please pray for me that I do so more articulately in the future," he said.

Santorum also took on Gingrich, reminding the crowd that he and his own wife, Karen, have been married 21 years and homeschooled their seven children.

Several signs point to Santorum strength. As Gingrich retreated south, Santorum left Alabama on Friday for a dash across Kansas and Missouri before returning to Mississippi today. Missouri holds Republican caucuses on Saturday.

GOP candidate battle turns to Alabama, Mississippi 03/10/12 [Last modified: Saturday, March 10, 2012 9:58pm]

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